The Necessity of Atonement for the Sins of the Modern World

A depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on a cross with 2 other robbers nearby on Calvary. The sky is darkened with lightning and rays of light break through the clouds onto the cross for drama. Concept of the death of Jesus on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Horizontal orientation with copy space.

Twitter can do many things for you. It can give you headaches. It can get you into all sorts of long-winded arguments that simply do not fit into 140 characters. It can net you a library of memes to impress—or terribly annoy—your friends. In addition to all of those wonderful benefits, if you follow the right accounts, Twitter can also provide you with an invaluable window into contemporary issues surrounding theology, ethics, culture, and similar subjects.

One topic I saw recently discussed in my “Twitter theology” ventures had to do with the contemporary relevance of different atonement models. For those wondering, atonement models are those theological schemas that have been developed over the centuries in order to help explain what exactly Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection accomplished. Now, before going any further, it needs to be acknowledged that the study of the atonement and the various theological models that surround it is a huge field and cannot be covered in any real depth here. In this article, I will limit my interaction to the two most prominent theories (in one form or another) over the Christian centuries: the Christus Victor model and the penal substitution model.

The Christus Victor Model

The Christus Victor atonement model explains how Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection defeated the various evil powers that have enslaved, corrupted, and tormented God’s good creation. It draws on the frequent and repeated theme found throughout the Gospels of Christ’s driving out of demons, healing of the sick and dying, and His victory over the devil. One of the key verses for the Christus Victor model is 1 John 3:8b:

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (NIV)

Another passage that summarizes the Christus Victor model comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews. There, the author of the letter writes:

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Heb. 2:14-15 NIV)

The Christus Victor theory of the atonement emphasizes the victory of Christ over sin, death, and the devil. It reminds us as Christians that no matter what the horror, no matter what the atrocity, no matter what the evil, Christ has ultimately defeated it. As the Eastern Orthodox Paschal troparion puts it so well:

“Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

The Penal Substitution Model

The penal substitution model of the atonement looks at the biblical theme of Christ willfully taking on the sins of humanity and suffering the just punishment of that sin so that we might not have to. The Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah 53 are the among the clearest examples of this theme:

“Surely he took up our pain
 and bore our suffering,
 yet we considered him punished by God,
 stricken by him, and afflicted.
 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
 he was crushed for our iniquities;
 the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
 and by his wounds we are healed.
 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
 each of us has turned to our own way; 
and the Lord has laid on him
 the iniquity of us all.” (Isa. 53:4-6 NIV)

This theme can be found in several of Paul’s letters as well, most notably in Romans (e.g. Rom. 3:25) and Galatians (e.g. Gal 3:13). Just as the primary emphasis of the Christus Victor atonement model is Christ’s defeat of and victory over death and evil, so the primary emphasis of the penal substitution is Christ’s gratuitous and voluntary taking on of the punishment of humanity’s sins. Christ willingly substituted himself for all of humanity and bore the just punishment for sin: death.

Auschwitz and Atonement

For most of Christian history, the necessity of these atonement models was evident. The earliest Christians, like the Apostle John, and the Greek Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa, understood the need for One more powerful than death and evil to defeat those two forces that have ravaged God’s world. Medieval theologians, like Anselm of Canterbury, and Reformers, like John Calvin, knew that fallen humans needed God to save them from their sins. However, with the Enlightenment came a misplaced and arrogant dismissal of the Christian moral and spiritual views that had paved the way for the great triumphs of modernity in the first place. While most Christians and Christian thinkers retained a strong emphasis on the need for atonement through Christ’s death and resurrection, many vocal liberal Christian thinkers began to dismiss the need for these strong atonement models. This trend has recurred throughout modernity and well into post-modernity.

The question remains today in both certain theological circles and in the “Twitter theology” sphere: are such models of the atonement—and even the doctrine of the atonement itself—still relevant to both the Church and the postmodern world? My answer is an emphatic yes. The twentieth century has shown us that the Enlightenment dream of ridding the world of evil and suffering through human effort is bankrupt. In the wake of the killing fields of Cambodia, the Stalinist purges, and the human smoke of Auschwitz, the Enlightenment dream lies buried under the rubble and corpses of the bloodiest century in human history. From the First World War all the way through to the Holocaust, the Communist regimes of the USSR and China, and beyond, the dream of a secular society divorced from transcendent moral laws and principles has produced million upon millions of victims in its wake. The dream of the Enlightenment died in the trenches of France in the summer of 1914, in the innocent people murdered by Soviet bullets, and in the mechanized killing of innocents in the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps.

The Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted this reality in her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann: “It is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past.” The evils of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler may have their direct culpability tied to their perpetrating regimes, but the imprint of them remains on our shared humanity.

David Berlinski, a Jewish-American philosopher, extrapolated on Arendt’s statement in a 2014 interview for the Hoover Institution: “It is in this sense that the 20th century, having introduced into human history crimes never before imagined, is immortal. It is simply there, an obelisk in human history, black, forbidding, irremovable and inexpungible.”

Berlinski is right in a qualified sense. The terrible horrors of the 20th century are indeed “irremovable and inexpungible” by any human efforts. There is absolutely nothing that we as mere mortal, contingent beings can ever to do to remove the “obelisk” of Auschwitz. The only hope of such evil ever being ultimately defeated lies with One who is greater than darkness and evil themselves. In short, only a creative act of God could hope to right the wrongs of the modern world, let alone the vast evils that have accumulated over the span of human history. Not only would this vast evil have to be defeated, justice for the sins of humanity would have to be done, a justice that humanity itself would be crushed under. It seems that the only hope for the ultimate defeat of these evils and the ultimate righting of wrongs lies with the Crucified God who can do both, for the human race stands utterly impotent before such darkness otherwise.

Do we need atonement theories in the 21st century? Do we need the doctrine of the atonement at all? I suppose I’ll answer these questions with a question of my own: “What on earth makes you think we can do without it?”

We need the atonement and all the various models that go with it, now more than ever.

Image attribution: ronniechua / Thinkstock

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